Based on West African folklore, this first book in a YA fantasy series begins with a refugee, Malik, and his sisters escaping into the city Ziran. When a demon steals Malik’s younger sister Nadia, Malik strikes a bargain with him to win her back — in order to save his sister, Malik must murder Princess Karina. Meanwhile, Karina longs to escape the city’s walls. After witnessing her mother’s murder, Karina takes her place as Sultana of Ziran — though she and the council decide to keep this a secret until after the famous Solstasia Festival. Without her mother, it’s up to Karina to host the festival and the corresponding competition. Still struggling with grief, in a moment of thoughtlessness Karina declares that the winner of the competition will win her hand in marriage. Malik, the refugee who must kill her in order to save his sister, is among the competitors. Full of near-death experiences, political machinations, revenge, and magic, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin is a thrilling, fast-paced read.
This super fun novella is inspired by wuxia, a Chinese genre of fiction that involves martial arts and adventures set in ancient China. Guet Imm, a nun from the Order of the Pure Moon, joins a gang of notorious bandits — but they didn't know what they were signing up for when they agreed to let her join their latest smuggling adventure. As the bandits make their way through forests and mountains, and as deals go wrong — mostly thanks to Guet’s interference — a narrative thread emerges of religious and gender oppression, and of the silence that can surround political atrocities. The novella is packed with adventure while also addressing deeper interpersonal relationships and the effects of war on individuals.
Full of rich character development, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians is a book for readers who enjoy sprawling historical fantasy novels in the vein of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It takes place during the 18th century and focuses on the abolition of the slave trade and the French Revolution. Entwined in this real history is a fantastical one about magic and who is allowed to practice it — so, as British politician William Wilberforce and Prime Minister William Pitt attempt to abolish the slave trade in England, they’re also fighting for the rights of commoners to use their magic. Meanwhile, dark shadow creatures haunt England, and Pitt — with his secret dark magic — is the only one who can see and defeat them. Over in France, Maximilien Robespierre also hides a secret dark magic, but as a commoner, he’s not allowed to practice. After a shadowy figure presents himself as an ally, Robespierre begins to practice his magic in the aid of other commoners, and his magic becomes the driving force behind the French Revolution. In Jamaica, enslavers are using potions to suppress the magic of enslaved people, and to force them to follow their every command. As the three storylines entwine, magic serves to highlight the inequalities of the time. It’s a complicated and historically rich novel.
The Angel of the Crows is a delightfully clever Sherlock Holmes retelling full of angels and demons and vampires and murder. In 19th century London, Crow, a displaced angel, claims to protect the entire city by becoming a detective and solving unsolvable cases — but angels are meant to only protect buildings. This makes Crow an outcast both among the Angels and among the humans. Dr. Doyle has recently been medically discharged from the military after receiving a wound in Kandahar from one of the Fallen, who are monstrous demons. Unknown to anyone else, the wound has infected him and he can now turn into a hellhound. When Dr. Doyle and Crow become roommates, the two solve a series of four cases together, while also trying to discover the identity of Jack the Ripper. It’s incredibly enjoyable to watch the relationship develop between Crow and Dr. Doyle — which is the crux of all Sherlock Holmes spinoffs — and Addison’s take is particularly original.
This twisty horror fantasy is engrossing and wonderfully repulsive. Noemí Taboada is a socialite who delights in parties, fancy dresses, seducing men, and anthropology. After receiving a garbled letter from her recently married cousin and dear friend Catalina, she travels to the distant village of High Place and the decaying mansion that is now Catalina’s home. There, she finds Catalina incoherent and lethargic while the family she’s married into exude white-colonialist patriarchy — except for the youngest son, Francis, whose shy demeanor and pallid looks are the exact opposite to the men Noemí typically enjoys. But in this rank home with no friends, Francis becomes an anchor for Noemí. Meanwhile, the house itself seeps into her dreams and slowly comes alive around her. This is a must-read for fans of gothic writers like the Brontës, Daphne du Maurier, and Shirley Jackson, and also for those who enjoy the feminist, surreal fiction of Carmen Maria Machado. Content warning for sexual assault.
Or What You Will reminded me of the metafictions of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino. It invites readers to become active participants in the narrative while the main character, 73-year-old writer Sylvia Harrison, grapples with the nature of storytelling and the making of myths. “He” is a character that has appeared in all 30 novels Harrison has written in some shape or fashion, from a dragon to a thief to a child. Harrison is working on her latest fantasy novel set in a fictional version of Florence, with inspiration from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and The Tempest. As she writes, this character that’s rooted in every story she’s ever told comes alive in a new way and tries to convince her to achieve immortality within the pages of the book she’s writing. Both intellectual and engaging, this is a book for readers experienced in the fantasy genre and who also enjoy thinking about the craft of writing.
Dragons are a fantasy staple and this collection of exclusive short stories and poems by famous fantasy authors show their versatility. From classic writers like Patricia McKillip and Garth Nix to newer writers like R.F. Kuang and Zen Cho, editor Jonathan Strahan has compiled 29 pieces from the best of the best. A dragon chases a school bus in Kelly Robson’s “La Vitesse”; dragon breath is a source of power and dictates a city’s success in Ken Liu’s “A Whisper of Blue”; widows are exiled to the land of dragons in Kate Elliot’s “The Long Walk.” Each piece is as enjoyable as the next and the collection is a must for every fantasy reader’s library.
Soraya cannot be touched. Cursed by Divs (a society of magical creatures) as an infant so that her skin is poisonous, she lives in isolation — despite being the twin of the Shah of Golvahar — and finds solace in her garden. But when her brother arrives home from a campaign with a captured Div — and the handsome stranger who helped defeat it — she jumps at the chance to find out how to cure her curse. What begins as a “Rapunzel” and “Sleeping Beauty” retelling is subverted in the second half of the novel when everything Soraya knows as reality is overthrown. I loved the Persian setting and mythos. In an interviewed with Bashardoust, she told me, “I . . . wanted to see how else I could use touchstones of Persian myth and culture to explore and reframe a fairy tale [“Sleeping Beauty”] I loved. By bringing them together, I could find a way to honor both my cultural background and the fairy tales I had grown up with and am still fascinated by.” Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a lovely entwining of Persian culture and myth with well-known fairy tales.
Imagine if The Handmaid’s Tale were set in a religious, Puritanical cult during the Salem witch trials, with a heavy dose of horror, and you’ll have some idea of what you’re getting into with this surreal and feminist historical fantasy. Immanuelle Moore’s mother was promised to the Prophet — but she went against his word and conceived a child with an outsider of a different race. Once her illicit romance was discovered, she escaped into the forbidden forest — where witches and darkness and evil flourish — only to return months later to give birth to her daughter die. That daughter, Immanuelle, lives with the burden of her mother’s sinful legacy, and while she follows all the rules and codes of the Prophet, she doubts their validity. One day, she enters the woods to catch an errant sheep and encounters strange women who gift her her mother’s diary. Within the diary, her mother drew strange, horrific creatures and wrote a prophecy that the apocalypse would be heralded by four phases — blood, blight, darkness, and slaughter — and it seems that, by visiting the woods, Immanuelle has possibly initiated this foretold apocalypse. This is an intensely dark read and one of the most original books I’ve read in a long time.
When Shady Grove’s father died in a car accident, he left her his fiddle — but this is no ordinary fiddle. When played with enough sorrow, it can call up ghosts. After Shady’s stepfather is murdered, and her older brother Jesse is accused and arrested for the crime, Shady’s sorrow reaches a peak, and ghosts come to her when she plays the old folksongs her father taught her. She’s determined to prove her brother’s innocence and believes answers might lie with the dead. But every time she calls up ghosts with her fiddle, a dark, shadowy man appears and sometimes even controls her movements. Her friends try to help her find other ways to help her brother, but the allure of the fiddle is too strong. Meanwhile, she’s torn between her long-time crush for her fellow bandmate Sarah and her new crush for cowboy Cedar, who plays the bluegrass folksongs Shady adores. In this YA debut, Waters perfectly captures small-town Southern life, and her prose sings as much as Shady’s fiddle does. It’s a lovely and eerie Southern gothic. Content warning for child abuse.
This is a young adult fantasy that feels very of this moment. It begins with ICE pounding on a door, and the protagonist, Manu, hiding under the bed with her mother. Manu has lived her entire life in hiding; she wears sunglasses that hide her strangely shaped eyes and her mother fled from Argentina when she was too young to remember, and they’ve lived as undocumented refugees in Miami ever since. Manu hides something from her mother as well — every month on the full moon, she dreams she’s in another world, a magical world where she belongs. After her neighbor is attacked and her mother arrested by ICE, Manu can only find the answers to who or what she is by going to that dream place. Steeped in Argentine folklore of lobizonas (werewolves) and brujas (witches), this is such an important story to tell, and it’s also an engrossing read. While a little heavy on the YA tropes at times, the lush setting and folklore more than make up for it (and those YA tropes will probably be enjoyed by many). This is the first book in what’s currently a two book series.
This collection of fantastically weird short stories infused with elements from Black culture opens with the “Seven Watsons,” a loose retelling of “The Seven Ravens” but with geese instead. Set inside a Job Corps, the narrator, Flexo, welcomes his new bunkmate Chris, whose tattoo of a goose earns him the nickname of Duck. While something seems a little off with Duck, when his six other brothers come to live in the Job Corps too, the strangeness amplifies. Written in black vernacular, this story is immersive and my favorite in the collection. The other five stories have equally bizarre premises — a family of immortals use fruit to craft new body parts; a cosplaying wizard is accosted by scientists; a volleyball tournament in Hell goes wrong. Each story provides a singular and riveting reading experience.
Sheetel is the daughter of a star and a mortal, but she otherwise lives a completely normal life. She’s annoyed by her nosy aunt, hides a musician boyfriend from her overly protective father, and worries about her grades. Then her star self, which she’s kept hidden, starts calling to her: Her brilliantly white star hair refuses to be dyed; she begins to hear the stars singing to her; and one day, the star song overwhelms her with magic, and her touch sends her father into a coma. Desperate to save him, Sheetal and her best friend travel to the stars to ask Sheetel’s mother for star blood, which can cure humans. But when Sheetel arrives at the star palace, her mother’s family forces her into a magical music competition. Only if she wins can she return to her father and save him. In an interview, Thakrar told me she "adapted the source material (Vedic astrology), peppered in bits of mythology here and there (like the story of Gajendra and the crocodile), and even made up [her] own myth (the creation of diamonds) to create ... a modern and feminist original fairy tale." It’s a beautiful and complex YA fantasy about self-discovery and familial love.
Drowned Country is the brilliant sequel to the Greenhollow Duology, which began with the novella Silver in the Wood. In book two, Henry Silver has taken up the mantle of the wildman of Greenhollow woods from his predecessor and love interest Tobias Finch. Tobias has abandoned him to travel with Silver’s mother and solve cases involving magical beings, and now Silver mopes in his old home, alone. When he receives a letter from his mother requesting his assistance on a a difficult case reminiscent of Dracula, Silver travels to the dreary seaside town of Rothport, where he can feel the remnants of his woods in the sea, vanished long ago. The case becomes complicated when Maud, the woman they were meant to save from the clutches of a vampire, turns out to be quite efficient at taking care of herself — and, indeed, has her own quest. She means to find fairyland, which was Silver’s quest before becoming the wildman of Greenhollow. All three — Tobias, Silver, and Maud — sink beneath the ocean and into the Greenhollow woods lost to time. This is a lovely followup to book one, and I hope for more stories with these characters.
This feminist, standalone epic fantasy alternates between three voices — Anza, a member of the resistance; Esvar, the king’s youngest son; and Mirantha, the vanished Queen. Anza joins the resistance against the tyrannical king after her military father’s execution. She’s in the perfect position to be a resistor: She has no family, she’s educated, and her father secretly trained her in archery. While attending the country’s only university, she discovers Queen Mirantha’s diary hidden in the pages of another book. Queen Mirantha had vanished long ago, and it was assumed she was murdered by her husband the king. Queen Mirantha’s diary describes the abuse she received from the king, her efforts to raise her sons to be good rulers who think of justice first and foremost, and her doomed love affair with a priest. Prince Esvar is the same age as Anza, and even though he was a child when his mother vanished, he thinks about what she taught him every day. He despises his father, and he’s determined to see his brother on the throne as soon as possible — but with other more brutal courtiers having similar goals, he must be careful. Campbell spends time developing each character and slowly builds in political intrigue with a touch of romance, which all lead to a very satisfying climax and conclusion. It’s one of the best epic fantasies I’ve read in a long time. Content warning for sexual and domestic assault.
At the beginning of my review copy of Raybearer, Jordan Ifueko describes how this is the book she needed growing up as a fairytale loving daughter of Nigerian immigrants, who could never find herself in the available YA fantasy novels. While there are more choices today — novels by Nnedi Okorafor, Tochi Onyebuchi, and Tomi Adeyemi all spring to mind — diversity is still underrepresented in YA fantasy. Raybearer is an excellent and needed addition to diverse fantasy, and the writing and characters immediately captivated me. Tarisai can only be touched by her mother, who rarely visits her, and even when her mother does visit she rarely glances or speaks to her. To win her mother’s visits, Tarisai must excel in academics, which she desperately tries to do as one tutor replaces another. When her mother sends her to the empire’s capital of Aritsar to murder the prince, Tarisai realizes the mother she’s worshipped her entire childhood has never deserved her devotion. But bound by djinn magic, denying her mother’s commands is no easy task.
After writing The Mere Wife in 2018 — a modern, fictional retelling of the epic poem Beowulf — Headley decided to try her hand at translating the original Old English version. Written sometime between the 7th and 10th centuries, Beowulf is one of the oldest pieces of Old English literature. Old English bears very little resemblance to contemporary English, and the text has been translated many, many times. The poem tells the story of the warrior Beowulf and his battle with the monstrous Grendel and his mother, and then his final battle with a dragon. In many ways, the poem became the impetus for epic fantasy, full of heroes and honor with emphasis on the individual conquering primordial evil. Of the four translations I’ve read, Headley’s is the most readable and engaging. She combines a modern poetry style with some of the hallmarks of Old English poetry, and the words practically sing off the page. Her impetus for translating the text was specifically the depiction of Grendel’s mother as monstrous in previous translations, despite her not being characterized as such in the original. In fact, Headley argues that the closest translation for how Grendel’s mother is described in Old English is “formidable noblewoman.” Yet many previous translations describe Grendel’s mother as a hideous monster. Headley’s translation shows why it’s vital to have women and people from diverse backgrounds translate texts. If you haven’t read Beowulf before, start with Headley’s version, and if you have read Beowulf before, then it’s time to read it again.
Marijane Osborn, Elaine Treharne, and Meghan Purvis are among the women who have translated Beowulf. A previous version of this post said the text had only been translated by men.
Margaret Kingsbury is a writer and educator who gives daily book recommendations, says hello to birds, and has seen fairies. Follow her on Instagram @babylibrarians, on Twitter @readerlymom, or check out her kid lit website, Baby Librarians.